Perhaps the title character of this story is the typical Nabokovian hero ("destitute émigré and littérateur"); perhaps all such heroes are as doomed to misery and apotheosis as their creator was damned to fame. Whatever you may think of our dear Chorb, the beginning of our tale has few equals in modern literature:
The Kellers left the opera house at a late hour. In that pacific German city, where the very air seemed a little lusterless and where a transverse row of ripples had kept shading gently the reflected cathedral for well over seven centuries, Wagner was a leisurely affair presented with relish so as to overgorge one with music. After the opera Keller took his wife to a smart nightclub renowned for its white wine. It was past one in the morning when their car, flippantly lit on the inside, sped through lifeless streets to deposit them at the iron wicket of their small but dignified private house. Keller, a thickset old German, closely resembling Oom Paul Kruger, was the first to step down on the sidewalk, across which the loopy shadows of leaves stirred in the streetlamp's gray glimmer. For an instant his starched shirtfront and the droplets of bugles trimming his wife's dress caught the light as she disengaged a stout leg and climbed out of the car in her turn. The maid met them in the vestibule and, still carried by the momentum of the news, told them in a frightened whisper about Chorb's having called.
It takes a while to reach Chorb, who will prove to be anything but the picture of upper middle-class respectability sketched so sumptuously here. Not one detail forgets the mores of the haute bourgeoisie; for not one moment are the Kellers out of character. In fact, their inability to do anything not preprogrammed or measured in careful, flattened teaspoons will expose them as bereft of what may broadly be termed individualism and what may more precisely be called the nuts and bolts of an artistic temperament. Chorb will grossly represent what may be accomplished through art; the Kellers what may be accomplished through the worship of rules, savings accounts, and cleanliness. We will root for Chorb although we know very well that his return denotes his failure.
Their relationship to Chorb, we learn, is quite involuntary: he has gone and married their beloved daughter and absconded to the ends of an interbellum Europe with nature and romance as his lodestars. As they travel (all in flashbacks; Chorb spends the bulk of the story alone in tortured memories) it is Chorb who points out the differences in flora and fauna in that storybook way, mimicked so awkwardly in films, through an occasional aside that discloses a whole library. He will look back in vanquished emotions at his wife, whom he married just before her demise, and attempt to locate her parted spirit in the trail that they left together:
He passed in reverse through all the spots they had visited together during their honeymoon journey. In Switzerland where they had wintered and where the apple trees were now in their last bloom, he recognized nothing except the hotels. As to the Black Forest, through which they had hiked in the preceding autumn, the chill of the spring did not impede memory. And just as he had tried, on the southern beach, to find again that unique rounded black pebble with the regular little white belt, which she had happened to show him on the eve of their last ramble, so now he did his best to look up all the roadside items that retained her exclamation mark: the special profile of a cliff, a hut roofed with a layer of silvery-gray scales, a black fir tree and a footbridge over a white torrent, and something which one might be inclined to regard as a kind of fatidic prefiguration: the radial span of a spider's web between two telegraph wires that were beaded with droplets of mist.
We have seen these droplets elsewhere: they were already the festive baubles on a certain dress of a certain opera-goer. And those telegraph wires? And that spider's web? Our instincts suspect a solution that our voices are loath to pronounce for fear of trespassing into the overgrown lawn of symbolic weeds and far too many avid gardeners. Maybe how Chorb's wife died – a detail that need not be mentioned on these pages – might imbue the reader with a clearer notion of life's traps and tricks, especially on those who happen to notice the loose stitches in its tapestry.
There is a second act. Chorb, whose name suggests an angel or something far less aerodynamic, decides in almost tawdry cinematic fashion to replace the memories of his wife, which he knows he will distort and mostly lose over the course of his life, with the corporal proximity of a woman of little virtue who bears her some resemblance. They adjourn to a room in a filthy hotel where the couple once stayed by accident but do nothing that is expected in such rooms with such company. The girl, a pretty thing but obviously obtuse, stands in near-nakedness at the window, a sign that she will now act as the telescope for what we might consider to be a key to interpreting this odd tale, if it truly requires any interpretation at all:
Behind the curtain the casement was open and one could make out, in the velvety depths, a corner of the opera house, the black shoulder of a stone Orpheus outlined against the blue of the night, and a row of light along the dim façade which slanted off into the darkness. Down there, far away, diminutive dark silhouettes swarmed as they emerged from bright doorways onto the semicircular layers of illumined porch steps, to which glided up cars with shimmering headlights and smooth glistening tops. Only when the breakup was over and the brightness gone did the girl close the curtain again. She switched off the light and stretched on the bed beside Chorb. Just before falling asleep she caught herself thinking that once or twice she had already been in that room; she remembered the pink picture on the wall.
It is important that this girl notices only a blotch of pink on the wall; her exposure to the opera, to the Greek myths and our modern renderings of those myths, is limited to the brief snatches that she gets of what lies directly across from this den of debasement and primitive joy. In a way she will remind Chorb, who sleeps through her entire discovery, of his wife and what she did not get to have, as well as of his own ambitions and what they mean in relation to what society prescribes. Society will always gather after an artistic event and pretend that they understood every moment of it; an artist will keep to himself and revel in the future possibilities of his understanding it; and some unfortunate souls will just stare and know not what they espy. They might not even know that opera usually has three acts.